12 Rules for Life

You probably shouldn’t read Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. I’m not normally one to discourage reading (or intellectual endeavour), but this is a strange exception. It’s not exactly that Peterson is wrong about anything specific, although he occasionally very much is. It is rather that on many topics, he is right, but his extreme confidence in mixing many correct observations with some incorrect ones, combined with his bleak view of humanity make its potential for harming your worldview outweigh its potential for improving your life. His unwavering certitude is one reason I recommend against reading it: someone impressionable might not be able to distinguish between where his views are mainstream versus where they are highly dubious, to say nothing of how strident and repetitive his writing can be. (Most of the best things he says are said more eloquently elsewhere.) But my primary objection is with a sort of self-contradiction that exists in his ideas.

First, let me list its virtues: as I said, he is right about many facets of human nature, he is certain that he is right, and he is often often blunt in his delivery, and, in moderation, this can be refreshing. I do feel that the world, and certainly airplanes, would be a better place if parents read his chapter on child rearing. His ideas about the balance of order and chaos, while somewhat Manichean, are also somewhat interesting. Several chapters in the first half of the book represent a call to action and to personal responsibility, and in places it becomes effective motivational writing which might prompt one to be a slightly better person, though the advice is rarely concrete enough to put directly into practice. Although he often frames things in rather grim zero-sum terms, and fixates rather unhelpfully on social dominance hierarchies, the overall focus is on improving oneself, which is an admirable goal, and an important aspect of achieving any other worthwhile goal. Underlying all this, however, is a deep misanthropy and Social Darwinism, of which there are hints in the first half, and which come to dominate the second half. It is not exactly that he is wrong about human nature; it is actually that he is probably right about many of humanity’s shortcomings, and yet that does not justify miring oneself in them.

Peterson claims that “What you aim at determines what you see,” and this is true. He argues that not only goals but also tools become extensions to the self, and lenses through which one views the world (his views on tools are, as far as I can tell, straight from Heidegger). Yet he came to his own search for meaning first by the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, and later by a thorough investigation into the suffering in the Soviet Gulags and the Nazi concentration camps, later throwing a few school shootings into the mix (he has a preoccupation with Columbine). It is not that these topics should be excluded from one’s knowledge; education on these topics is certainly critical to preventing their occurrence in the future, and it is almost a moral obligation to learn about them. However this is hardly the place to start a search for meaning, much less to form one’s worldview or to find a set of rules by which to live one’s life. He tries to ground his philosophy in the reduction of suffering, and he is right that suffering teaches important lessons. Most of the world religions made this point two and a half thousand years ago. But his emphasis on suffering shows a rather fatalistic lack of hope for its amelioration. Buddhism’s first claim, as Peterson points out, is that life is suffering, but he totally ignores the fact that the three remaining Noble Truths are about how to understand suffering and how to end it. Peterson seems to stop at “Life is suffering, so let’s maybe try not to increase it,” which is not a particularly helpful position.

As a clinical psychologist, you might expect from Peterson the profound level of empathy and painfully accurate insights into human relationships offered by such an expert as Esther Perel, but far from any understanding of the difficulties people face he focuses almost exclusively on people’s frailties. His misogynistic musing on the causes of failed marriages is particularly repellent. Peterson’s refusal to accept excuses works well in his clarion call for readers to take responsibility, but comes off as victim-blaming when he looks at why relationships fail. This accusatory style runs throughout the book. Let me quote Peterson both to give an example of this style and to try to point to the tension that I feel damages the book:

But Christ himself, you might object, befriended tax-collectors and prostitutes. How dare I cast aspersions on the motives of those who are trying to help? But Christ was the archetypal perfect man. And you’re you. How do you know that your attempts to pull someone up won’t instead bring them—or you—further down? Imagine the case of someone supervising an exceptional team of workers, all of them striving towards a collectively held goal; imagine them hard-working, brilliant, creative and unified. But the person supervising is also responsible for someone troubled, who is performing poorly, elsewhere. In a fit of inspiration, the well-meaning manager moves that problematic person into the midst of his stellar team, hoping to improve him by example. What happens?—and the psychological literature is clear on this point. Does the errant interloper immediately straighten up and fly right? No. Instead, the entire team degenerates. The newcomer remains cynical, arrogant and neurotic. […] The delinquency spreads, not the stability. Down is a lot easier than up.​

Peterson is something like the newcomer in his own parable.​ His fixation on life’s suffering, human weakness, violence, and dominance represent a downward gaze that is not particularly helpful for improving one’s life. To put such emphasis on life’s hardships and especially on social dominance hierarchies seems to me likely to increase aggression, competition, and generally make one a worse person. While reading this book I perceived more hostility and threats from others, and I felt more competitive than I normally do, and not in a particularly helpful way. Peterson has clearly dwelt deeply on the darkness of humanity and on his own darkness. This is a side of human nature which any critical thinker, possibly any moral human, will have to grapple with. But if you want to improve your life, your time is better spent elsewhere.

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